Friday, January 30, 2015

Film Friday: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

12 Years A Slave is an historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York-born free black American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in 1841. Like Lone Survivor, this is an excellent and intense film which I would prefer never to see again.


12 Years A Slave begins by introducing Solomon Northup’s life in New York. This moment of the film is perhaps a little idealized with the whites around him being too colorblind compared to their historical counterparts, but the film nevertheless conveys the foundation of a smart, talented and competent man -- a man who would in other contexts be considered the type of solid American who made America great – who has established a happy, respectable family life in New York. Helping this presentation is the truly compelling screen presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Ejiofor is an actor who easily conveys emotion and inner thoughtfulness.
Northup is a musician and finds himself approached by two men who claim to be looking for a musician to accompany them to Washington. Northup could use the money and it’s only for two weeks, so he agrees. Things appear to go well until Northup wakes up in a cell in Washington, D.C. He has been drugged and he wakes up with several other blacks who appear to be runaway slaves or, like him, kidnapped freemen.

Helpless to free himself, Northup is smuggled to Louisiana where he is sold to his first slave master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup is forced to go by the name Platt, and has been warned never to share the truth of what happened to him or he would never escape.
Northup impresses Ford with his intelligence and wins him over. He tells Ford what has happened, but Ford is unable to free him because of debt concerns. Unfortunately, Northup also makes an enemy of a white plantation enforcer (Paul Dano) at this point and Ford is forced to ship Northup to another plantation to hide him. He believes he has chosen well, but the new owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a sadistic owner who believes that he has a Biblical obligation to own slaves.

On the surface, Epps seems respectable, but things are not as they seem. He repeatedly rapes one of his slaves and eventually has a child with her, despite the fury of his wife. He also abuses the other slaves out of frustration at his inability to stand up to his wife’s abuses of the slave with whom he is sleeping.
Finally, Northup meets a Canadian builder (Brad Pitt) who convinces him that he can contact Northup’s friends in the north and have him freed. I’ll leave the rest up for you.

Why This Film Works

This film works on many levels. It is an excellent period piece, done in such a way that it truly feels like you are getting a glimpse into a world long gone. It has beautiful cinematography. Indeed, some scenes are shot as beautifully as if you were watching a National Geographic Channel travelogue. It has an excellent ensemble cast who actually fit their roles for once, rather than being wedged into roles just to get their names in the credits.
What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the excellent way this film presents its material. First off, there is nothing in this film that anyone who is aware of slavery doesn’t already know. So the film is not relying on presenting something new or fresh. What it does instead is present things we already knew about in a way that is both realistic and graphic, and thus very visceral. However, the director also smartly uses cutaways to shield the audience from much of the horror. This makes the horror more palatable.
In fact, these cutaways are genius. By cutting away at these points, the film seems to spare the audience by telling the audience that they don’t need to see this play out to understand how horrific it was. Yet, at the same time, cutting away openly reminds the audience of how horrible this was and it is essentially telling the audience that what they would see would be too graphic for them to take. In effect, in appearing to spare the audience and avoiding a charge that the violence was gratuitous, the director actually ingeniously highlights the violence and makes it seem all that much stronger. Indeed, as an aside, while the film doesn’t show much of the horror, you still hear it and will see it your mind. We’ve noted before how powerful this technique can be.

The other thing the film does, and perhaps the most important point, is that it seems to make no comment on what is going on. The film tells the story as it happens, lets each character speak his or her mind, and then leaves it up to the audience to decide whether what is going on is evil or justified, and whether these people are good or bad. Even with the slaves, the film doesn’t do the Politically Correct thing and make them all angelic as it demonizes the whites. To the contrary, the film makes it very clear that there are good and bad people all around and that, many times, those people get swept up in events.
The end result of this approach is a truly gripping and compelling film. As with Lone Survivor, this film produces an incredible array of strong emotions. You feel true hatred for the people who have done this and anger that they did this in our country. You feel despair for the hopelessness of some people. You feel contempt for some who would not do what they could to help. And in the end, you feel a great deal of pride that Northup survived this ordeal, that others did stand up to help him, and that we went to war to end slavery.

All that makes this film worth seeing: great actors, great direction, gripping emotional script, and a film that rises far above the generic crap being put out today. But again, as with Lone Survivor, this is a difficult film to watch because it is so disturbing to think this really happened and that people can treat each other this way, and I would not like to see the film a second time.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Friday(-ish): The Gathering Storm

by Kit

The Gathering Storm, a depiction of Winston Churchill during his “Wilderness Years” of the mid-30s as he attempts to warn Britain about the impending danger of Germany, produced by HBO, and starring Albert Finney as Churchill is flawed masterpiece. What is fascinating is how it overcomes its massive flaw, which could have easily been avoided, through use of a stellar cast of recognizable faces, especially Finney, giving us one of the most accurate and authentic portrayals of an historical figure I’ve ever seen in a film.

WARNING! The flaw is in the Third Act so there will be MAJOR SPOILERS HERE!

The Story

The genius of the movie's portrayal of Winston can be summed up in the first ten minutes, by the way. A car arrives at a place of the Battle of Blenheim and Winston, darkly dressed in suit and hat with a cigar in his mouth, steps out of the car to swelling music, giving us. Walks up to a hill and imagines of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, on horseback leading the British army amidst all the battle’s horrors to the stirring strings of "Rule, Britannia”. As cannon balls explode around him, Marlborough turns his head to Winston and they make  —and Winston wakes up nude at his Chartwell home in 1934 and waddles to his restroom (still nude) to take a pee reciting a speech about why giving India its independence would "mark the downfall of the British Empire."

And we get a glimpse of his bare buttocks as he walks over to the restroom. It's not the prettiest sight. Winston Churchill is at the nadir of his political career. His position on his party’s India policy has made him politically isolated, his finances are in trouble due to the loss of much of his wealth in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, his relationship with his older children is strained and his wife Clemmie seems to be barely keeping the family together, and he suffers commonly from what he and his wife call his “black dog days”. His primary joy seems to his current book about the aforementioned Duke of Marlborough that he dreamed about. And painting watercolors.

Winston is in this state when Desmond Morton, a civil servant at the Foreign Office, arrives at Chartwell with information on Germany’s rearmament. Winston, equipped with this information begins making speeches to Parliament on the issue. Morton also brings in a young man working at the Foreign Office with access to much better information about Nazi Germany than him named Ralph Wigram. Wigram, who despises the Nazi ideology due to having a son with cerebral palsy, reluctantly agrees to break the law by “stealing classified documents and giving them to someone who has no right to use them.”

The second act takes the following course; Clemmie soon departs on a safari leaving Winston to run the house alone. A task to which he is not as well-suited, struggling to deal with family issues and problems with a landscaping project at Chartwell.

Winston uses the information from Wigram well, building opposition to the appeasement policy despite attempts by Stanley Baldwin to undermine him by getting people in his constituency to attack him.

Wigram, however, who in one scene admits to Winston that he is a “worrier” who is concerned about his job and his family, which is dependent upon his job, slowly begins to despair as he sees the Nazi’s building continuing unabated and feeling stress about the possibility of losing his job over what the help he is giving to Winston (which would trouble for his family). He begins to have doubts about what they are doing and whether or not it will work at all. Th stress of it all is clearly building upon him.

Which leads us to the films biggest flaw. He cracks and dies suddenly on New Year’s Eve and it is heavily implied to be a suicide. The scene and the following two at the graveyard where Churchill comforts Wigram’s widow Ava and the scene at Churchill’s house between Winston and Clemmie talking about the future are well-done and the movie could’ve stopped there, ending the movie on an ominous note.But instead we skip ahead 5 years rather abruptly to September of 1939 when Neville Chamberlain is announcing the beginning of the war against Germany and Winston Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. This creates quite a drag despite giving us a rousing coda where Churchill arrives at the Admiralty.

In the opening minutes the movie gives us the stout and heroic Churchill we all know from childhood and promptly tosses it in the rubbish bin by showing us this rather pathetic and pudgy man, who in his words is “witnessing my own demise”. The rest of the movie takes us on a slow course of subtly showing Winston steadily gain the confidence and spirit needed to be the savior of Britain —5 years before the advent of Second World War. A sort of “superhero origin story”, if you will with the Wigrams seeming to serve as a sort-of stand-in for the British people he would later inspire.

This also allows us to feel like we know Winston Churchill better. We see his bullying of his servants but also his compassion. We watch him struggle with despair and climb out of it (albeit subtly). And since much of the movie is of him at home it seems as if we are living at Chartwell with him. By seeing him at his home during one of the worst times of his life we feel like know him better. The result is that by the end I was kind of sad to see it end, I wanted to spend more time with Winston.

When a biopic makes you feel like you have actually spent time with him and you actually want to spend more time with him, even if it is more out of perverse fascination as in Downfall, and if it is at least fairly accurate, then it has accomplished the important task of putting the person onto the screen.

And the cast supporting Finney is amazing. I did not mention them in the story summary because it would’ve dragged the story with parenthesis in every other sentence so here is a list of persons you might recognize (aside from Albert Finney): Vanessa Redgrave (Guinevere in Camelot and lots of other movies) as Clemmie Churchill, Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!, Slughorn in Harry Potter) as Desmond Morton, Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins) as Ralph Wigram, Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones) as Ralph’s wife Ava, Derek Jacobi (Henry V, Hamlet, Gladiator, and the upcoming Cinderella) as PM Stanley Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin in John Adams) as Sir Robert Vansittart, Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Avengers) as Winston’s son Randolph, Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) as Baldwin’s lackey Ivo Pettifer, and Gottfried John (General Ourumov in Goldeneye) as a visiting German official. And there are others I’ve probably neglected but those are the ones I’ve recognized from other movies.

So with a cast like that you can imagine the result: Great performances all around. This is a movie where there is not a badly written character.

What Doesn’t Work and How it Could Have Been Fixed

The problem is in the Third Act. Despite attempts to build up Ralph’s despair the death feels abrupt. Now, his death really did happen on January 31, 1935 and, despite being listed as pulmonary hemorrhage, it is widely believed to have been a suicide.
Perhaps a bit more time could have helped. The review at the expressed dismay that Churchill’s “Munich” speech was not in the movie. The movie was only 90 minutes and primarily covers only 1934 to 1935 so maybe expanding it to 110 or 120 might or making it a 2-part, 4-hour miniseries have helped it. Perhaps doing this, maybe as a 120+ minute  movie or as a 4-hour mini-series, would have allowed them to move Wigram’s suicide to after the capitulation at Munich. Film adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story. Or they could keep it accurate and keep Ralph’s death by putting it in 1935 would’ve made a great point to end Part 1. Or covering all the period between 1935 and 1939. adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story.
Or, finally, they could have cut the last 5 minutes out altogether. Shorter movie, yes. But the shot of Winston Churchill looking out from Chartwell into the night sky after Ralph’s death is a great one and, as I said above, would have made a great moment to end the series. A bit too abrupt, maybe, and it would’ve cut the rousing scene where Winston arrives at the Admiralty to swelling music we heard at the beginning but it would’ve helped.


But, on the whole, the film is indeed a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one, and worth a watch. The performances are excellent and Finney is so good that I have actually had trouble watching other  portrayals of Winston Churchill because they do come even close to what Finney accomplishes in The Gathering Storm.

Especially the sequel, Into the Storm, with Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill. Which I had to quit watching out of a disinterest due to its episodic script ( compared it to a “Greatest Hits of World War 2”) and uninteresting portrayals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

So, I say watch it. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Guest Review: Samurai Cop (1991)

by ScottDS

In 2012, I invited you all to The Room. In 2014, we made the Miami Connection. And now, in 2015, I will introduce you to the Samurai Cop. Directed by Iranian expat Amir Shervan, this is one of the most inept films ever made... and it’s a riot! Ever since the Red Letter Media (Mr. Plinkett) guys mentioned it, I’ve wanted to see it. And now I have. Fasten your seatbelts.

Watch this (kinda NSFW) trailer. I’ll be right here.

Pretty crazy, huh? The, uh, plot involves… oh, f--- it. What plot? There’s a Japanese gang, known as the Katana Gang. They’re expanding their turf and our hero cop – the titular Samurai Cop aka Joe Marshall – is brought in from San Diego to kick some ass. The end. Seriously, that’s it. The gang is led by Fujiyama. He has some henchman. Marshall has a wise-cracking black partner, Washington. They have a grouchy captain. Marshall hooks up with a hot lady cop as well as the villain’s hot lady friend. Plenty of guns are fired, though with one or two brief exceptions, I’m not sure there’s any actual Samurai on display. If there is, it’s not from Marshall, who we’re told is a master yet he looks like some surfer dude. Seriously, this is one of the great “so bad, it’s good” movies and I highly recommend watching it with some friends. Smoke ’em if you got ’em!
To the best of my knowledge, Amir Shervan was kind of a big deal in his native land and when he made it to our shores after the Revolution, he directed one schlockfest after another. It’s interesting to watch this movie: it really is a foreigner’s idea of what a “typical” American action film (circa the late 80s, early 90s) should be like. You have the cop, the partner, the love interest, the superior, the villain, and the henchmen. What else do you need? Oh yeah, how about an actual grasp of American culture? Or at the very minimum, a grasp of the English language? The dialogue (such as it is) is so ridiculous and stilted at times, you’d think the film was made by aliens. I kid you not – at one point, Marshall addresses the villains as “You son of a bitches!” The actor tried to fix it but Shervan (who also wrote the film) wouldn’t have any of it.

Matt Hannon plays Marshall. He looks the part but he’s not a great actor. The only remotely recognizable face in the film (emphasis on “face”) is Robert Z’Dar, who plays a henchman named Yamashita, despite being very much American. Z’Dar suffers from cherubism, which is why he looks the way he does. From watching the film, it’s clear the B-movie favorite is having a blast. His is an imposing presence and he takes the material completely seriously. Another henchman is played by Gerald Okamura, an actual martial artist who’s appeared in several films and TV shows. I can’t say I’m familiar with the rest of the cast: Fujiyama is played by Cranston Komuro and Mark Frazer plays Washington. He and Hannon have good chemistry, though you get the impression that the two guys made up all their schtick on the spot. The hot lady cop is played by scream queen Melissa Moore. Uh, she does good work. [smile]
If you watched the trailer linked above, you may have noticed that the color timing is inconsistent. That’s not just the trailer – the tint often changes in the same scene, from one shot to the next. Hot to cold to hot again. The editing is horrible: there’s a noticeable lack of establishing shots, some shots are cut off too early while others linger for several seconds, and the dubbing... oh God, the dubbing. Not only are there frequent sync problems, but Shervan himself dubbed several of the actors. It’s quite obvious, especially when the lines are delivered back to back. Were the actors so busy that they were unable to come back and loop their lines? Or did Shervan finally realize he needed a modicum of story so he decided to dub in lines he felt were necessary for exposition?
I haven’t even talked about the wig yet! So the film wrapped and several months go by. In the interim, Hannon cut his hair, only for Shervan to ask him to come back for re-shoots. Horrified with Hannon’s new haircut, Shervan made him wear a wig. Fair enough. Well, the reshoots must have taken a long time because Hannon spends half the movie wearing this ridiculous mop! It changes from shot to shot and even slips off in one fight scene. It’s un-effing-believable! Let’s see… what else. Oh yeah, the locations. The locations look like the filmmakers just happened to stumble across them. Multiple inserts were filmed in Shervan’s office and one backyard fight scene looks like it was shot in three different places! Poor Mark Frazer (Washington) has several scenes where he isn’t acting with anyone – the director simply told him, “Make a happy face. Now a sad face.” The film cuts from a two-shot of Hannon and another actor to Frazer and it’s obvious his close-ups were filmed out of context. There’s a scene in the police captain’s office where both Hannon and Frazer were filmed separately for their close-ups and it shows. To be fair, this is often SOP when it comes to filmmaking but, you know, most filmmakers try to make the shots match!
The film came and went. There was no premiere, no theatrical release, and the home video rights were snatched up by some company in Europe. So we must ask: who grieves for Samurai Cop? The good news is the film has since been re-discovered (or, rather, discovered by the first time). I don’t know where the existing print came from but for the last several years, it’s been playing the midnight circuit to sold out crowds. Not only that, it was recently released on Blu-Ray with extras. And not only that, there was a rumor that star Matt Hannon had died. His film student daughter found out and Hannon recorded a brief YouTube video explaining that he’s very much alive. And not only that, currently shooting in Los Angeles: Samurai Cop 2!! That’s right – the original gang is back together for a sequel!! I’m not familiar with the filmmakers but they promise to make a real movie this time, but with some inside jokes for fans. Hannon and Frazer are joined by a trio of porn stars (whose names I may or may not have recognized)... actress Bai Ling... The Room’s Tommy Wiseau (!)... and George Lazenby (!!). I don’t know what to expect but I’ll be there on opening night!

If you love bad movies, I can’t recommend this highly enough. If you value things like story and character, not to mention semi-decent camerawork and sound, then maybe it’s not for you. Hannon was recently interviewed by the RLM guys and he comes across as a cool guy who’s just as baffled about all this as I am. I wish him the best of luck.

“What happened? Are you out or in?”
“Baby, I'm always in.”
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kubrick: Will Dr. Strangelove Survive The Test Of Time?

Some time ago, I ran across an article which opined that Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove would remain popular forever. I don’t buy it... not at all. To the contrary, I think Dr. Strangelove and Kubrick are both fading fast.

The article in question begins with the author stating that Dr. Strangelove is now 50 years old and just happens to be a film the author “constantly revisits” as a “favorite cinematic exercise in Kubrick’s storied career.” The author then notes that the purpose of their article is to “highlight those elements” of the film which provide the film with “its continued relevance to a post-Cold War society” and basically to explain why this film will remain popular forever.

Ultimately, however, the author comes up with little to nothing. Indeed, while at first glance the author appears to identify several elements which could arguably support the idea that the film could remain relevant and funny to future generations, it quickly becomes obvious that the author has simply repeated one idea over and over and over: this film will last forever because Kubrick used dark humor to parody something which scared the author and his friends... the potential of nuclear war being caused by crazed (American) leaders. But that point is a faulty point.

Here are the arguments given by the author:
(1) Kubrick’s use of humor and satire to tell a Cold War story was bold and innovative... a Cold War story, people!... a scary Cold War story about nuclear war!!... told with humor!! That’s fricken BOLD!!;

(2) Kubrick did this when Cold War saber-rattling was at its worst and terrified us all, ergo it was SUPER BOLD;

(3) the book this film was based on was a serious book, but Kubrick turned it to satire... a BOLD choice!!!; and

(4) Kubrick pokes fun at the military’s “mindless patriotism” and suggests that “warmongering is the business of men with sexual inadequacy issues,” thereby turning an anti-military indictment into a parody!
As I noted, however, each of these arguments is ultimately the same idea, that Kubrick was brilliant to use parody to address a topic which scared us then and continues to scare us today. But that’s wrong. Indeed, for his thesis to work, the author assumes that we are all terrified by the idea of crazed, incompetent Americans starting an insane nuclear war with the Russians. But that’s just not true.

The Cold War is dead and gone and younger generations don’t care about it. It is ancient history to them. They do not hate or fear the Russians, they never saw a Soviet, they don’t understand the ideological goals of communism nor have they seen it backed by military muscle, and they never grew up worrying about a nuclear exchange. Even my generation didn’t see nuclear war as something to worry about. We didn’t see it happening and if it did, there was nothing we could do about it. So at best, we were fatalists – something you see reflected in much of 1980's culture. And few Americans ever bought into the idea that our military is bloodthirsty or wants a nuclear war. So the author's premise that these issues resonate with us all is flat out wrong.

Nor can I say that Kubrick has done anything uniquely interesting in attacking a serious subject with satire. The author seems amazed by this, but I can name a dozen earlier films that did the same thing, like Chaplin’s The Dictator. And there have been others that followed, like Spies Like Us. So Kubrick’s film hardly stands out as unique in that regard. Moreover, Kubrick’s parody feels dated today as the modern military simply doesn’t look or act like the one being parodied, as the Russians are no longer the threat they were – in fact, nothing has replaced their omnipresence as an existential threat, and as many of the gags feel like they would no longer work in the age of computers and cells phone and live-satellite surveillance.

All in all, when I look at Dr. Strangelove, I see an interesting historical curiosity that was well done and deserves to be seen as a classic, but has no punch today. There is nothing about this film that feels the least bit relevant today, the gags feel dated and oft-copied, and none of the key elements that make this film work feel like they could happen today.

Moreover, I am starting to see Kubrick’s star fading. Indeed, while Kubrick was once seen as having entered the pantheon of eternity as one of the greatest directors of all times, since his death, he seems to be slipping fast into the ranks of good, but not-divine directors.

Why do I say that? Well, one way I judge longevity is by paying attention to how often films end up on television and how often they get referenced throughout the rest of the culture. A decade ago, Kubrick was everywhere. His films were a regular staple on various channels... A Clockwork Orange, 2001, Spartacus, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, etc. were on every week. Sitcoms, other films and politicians referenced them. They were parodied by other films. New films by Kubrick were an event. And Kubrick’s name automatically came up without dissent in discussions of the best directors ever.

None of this is true anymore, however. Outside of The Shining, few Kubrick films get much play these days. I can’t think of the last politician or political cartoon to mention his films. No one parodies his films anymore. And, since his death, he seems to be increasingly forgotten in the discussion of the great directors ever, with people being more interested in discussing whether Christopher Nolan and James Cameron should be on the list.

Now don’t get me wrong, as I’m sure some are already planning, but I’m not saying that Kubrick has been excised from the culture or that Dr. Strangelove will never be seen again. I’m sure he will always remain on the lists of film buffs and his films will continue to find a home on “classic” channels. But what really I’m saying is that Kubrick seems to have fallen a notch from the eternals to the really good, and his films now seem like a thing of the past rather than an influence on the present and something to be passed on to the future. And like it or not, I just don’t see Dr. Strangelove continuing to relate to future generations as it has no relevance to their lives.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Schedule Restarts Next Week!

Hi Everyone! The film site will be starting again in earnest next week. So tune in Tuesday! In the meantime, are there any movies you are interested in seeing this year?
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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! May Santa bring you everything you are wishing for, and may the spirit of the season remind you why we celebrate this time of year. :D

P.S. With things going better finally, I'm hoping to start a more regular schedule in January again.
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Friday, December 19, 2014

FilmFriday: Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor is an excellent film and I definitely recommend seeing it. It is the best of the Iraq/Afghanistan films by far, and there is a reason for that: this film doesn’t impugn the motives of the good guys. That said, however, this is a hard film to watch because of the subject matter. It is hard to see monsters like the Taliban prevail over good men.


Directed by Peter Berg and staring Mark Wahlberg, Lone Survivor is the true story of a four-man SEAL team reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan during Operation Red Wings, as told by the mission’s sole survivor, Marcus Luttrell. The mission in question was to track down Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, who had masterminded the killing of numerous Marines in the prior weeks.
The film begins by introducing us to the soldiers, who are played by Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsh and Ben Foster, and their support team, which includes Eric Bana as their area leader. The team is then dropped into the mountains in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The team locates the village where Shah is believed to be quartered and they begin their observation, though they are having serious communications problems with their home base.

Before the team can move in on Shah, however, a goat herder and his sons come across the SEALs. The SEALs capture them and debate what to do about them. They know that if they let them go, the Afghans will run straight to Shah and report their presence. That will ruin the mission and get them killed. But they can’t hold them prisoner either if they want to accomplish their mission. Thus, a debate begins about killing them. Ultimately, however, the team decides this would be wrong and they let the herder go.
Shortly thereafter, the SEALs find themselves hunted in the mountains by hundreds of Taliban fighters. As the title suggests, all but Luttrell are eventually killed. Luttrell somehow finds his way to another Afghan village, where the villagers protect him as required by their religious beliefs which require the protection of guests. Another battle ensues.

My Thoughts

My first thought about this film was simple: this was the Iraqi/Afghan film the public wanted to see. This film showed the hardships and hard choices these men faced. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but it doesn’t make the good guys into villains either. It also explains why they were there, both by showing how evil the bad guys are and how there are good Afghans too who need protection. Had Hollywood focused on films like this, rather than trying to slander and politicize these wars, then their track record wouldn’t be an unmitigated list of failed films. But Hollywood couldn’t help themselves and their box office results show the consequences. This film, by the way, made $143 million on a $40 million budget, and has blown away every other post 9/11 war film.

Interestingly, the film isn’t without an anti-war bent either. In fact, in the key scene, you see Navy SEALs debating the murder of a goat herder and his sons. Prior to the rest of the 9/11 films, this likely would have shocked and outraged American audiences, but here it doesn’t feel anti-American at all. To the contrary, it really ultimately shows that these guy choose ethics and morality over common sense, and that kind of makes you proud seeing how much they risk to do the right thing.

The film also shows Americans getting overwhelmed and killed. That too would have been shocking before the other 9/11 films, but here it just goes to highlight the horrible missions we are asking these guys to undertake. This isn’t a statement on American troops being unprepared or incompetent, it is a statement of the odds these men face every day.
So while the film has some things that would have shocked us in 2000, today they don’t. And even then, I think they wouldn’t have outraged us in 2000 so much as they would have just felt more “realistic.” The reason these things don’t outrage us, unlike similar things in other Iraqi films, is that the ethics, patriotism and motivations of the Americans are never at issue in this film. There is no suggestion that these guys want to torture people, that they are trying to steal oil or other resources, or that they hate all Afghans because they are racists. These are genuinely good guys caught in a crappy situation. That’s why audiences responded well to this, but rejected the rest of Hollywood’s Iraq/Afghanistan sewage.

My next thought is that I hated watching this film. Don’t get me wrong, this was a strong and compelling film. It was well shot, well acted and well written. The highs are high and the lows are low and the film is super thoughtful. It is an excellent film.

...but, I hated watching this film because of the subject matter. It sucks thinking that these guys, with so much to offer the world, died fighting such animals. It sucks knowing that these creatures will continue long after we’ve gone, killing and torturing and destroying everything and everyone their sick religion doesn’t like. It sucks knowing that there are great men of courage, like Mohammad Gulab, who saved Luttrell and protected him, who must now fear being destroyed by the animals who form the Taliban. That’s not how life should be.
Basically, this is a great film with a very depressing and outraging subject matter. It makes you proud of the good guys, but depressed that the bad guys probably will one day prevail, and it makes you sick that these people exist.

Finally, I will say that the one problem I had with the film was that I have seen so much in reality TV on the Discovery Channel (and the such) that it’s hard for films to have the same impact. It’s hard to compete with the real thing, and many of the documentaries about the men who fight these wars are very compelling. This one, however, does hit home as it is a true story, and they do end the film by showing you the real men... a very sad moment.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Movie Executives Are Despicable People

Hollywood studio exes are assh*les! Really? They say racist and obnoxious things? SHOCKING!!! They hate the smug stars with whom they work? I'm stunned! Actually, I'm not.

For those who don't know, a group of hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace ("GOP") hacked Sony's computer network and made off with a ton of information related to their studio operations. This includes employee data, phone numbers, aliases used by stars, complete scripts, budgets and emails. The suspicion is that this was done by North Korea in retaliation for Sony releasing a film called The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play film producers who attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un... who had his uncle eaten by dogs and looks like the nerd who sings "Gangam Style."

Anyway, for the past few weeks, they've been releasing these emails bit by bit, freaking out everyone in Hollywood. What the emails have shown is that much of what we suspected about Hollywood is true: it is populated by vile, hateful people. Indeed, read the following and tell me if you see a pattern:
● Sony pays its male executives a lot more than they pay their female executives.

● Sony lobbies against Google (which they call Googliath) out of spite in retaliation for Google not doing enough, in their opinion, to stop pirates.

● More movies make money than Sony admits publicly.

● Many of these emails were written by illiterate executives who don't know the difference between words like lose/loose, their/there/they're, and to/too. Foul language is the order of the day.

● Sony employees don't like Adam Sandler films, which they consider "formulaic"... though I wonder what they produce that isn't formulaic.

● Studio execs called Angelina Jolie "a spoiled brat" and complained about "the insanity and rampaging spoiled ego of this woman." When one exec was told to get Jolie's project under control, the response was: "DO NOT FUCKING THREATEN ME"

● The head of Sony pictures only knew Michael Fassbender because of the size of his penis, which he had seen on screen.

● They describe Leonardo DiCaprio as "actually despicable."

● Despite contributing heavily to Obama and supporting him, studio execs engaged in a racist discussion in which they tried to come up with a list of films Obama must like, each of which involved black actors.

● Studio co-boss Amy Pascal implied that actors adopt black orphans as accessories, and she described stars looking to work in television instead of in film as "the new black baby."

● Studio execs called Kevin Hart, who is black, "a whore."

● Studio execs described David O. Russell, who directed American Hustle, as "a loon" who "got in trouble" for feeling up his teenage transgender niece.
And so on. In response to this, these executives have claimed that these emails are not who they really are as people. Yeah right.

I find this interesting on many levels. First, the most obvious is that these studio execs are clearly odious people. They are hateful backstabbers who lie, in-fight, and think nothing of openly racist behavior. Yet when confronted with their own shameful actions, rather than being shamed, they claim "this isn't who I really am!" That's delusional. Of all things, you are the person you act like in private among people you view as confidantes.

Further, keep in mind how liberals react to suggestions of racism. When it's someone they don't like, they feel happy convicting you on the basis of their own belief about what must be in your mind. The slightest hint of verbalizing something as these people have done would bring instant groupthink howls that the person must be an unrepentant racist, followed by calls for termination of employment and social blacklisting. Yet as these are good liberals who give money to Obama, this will be excused with an apology. Is it any wonder, the public no longer buys claims of racism from leftists? Also, is it any wonder that leftists think everyone must be racists, as they clearly are?

Next, how blind do they need to be to attack a Sandler film for being formulaic, but somehow not see that every... other... film... they... produce... is formulaic these days? Not to mention, how do people who can't spell or choose their words correctly end up with power in the film industry?

None of this is surprising. Hollywood loves to be smug and liberal, but every time the curtain is pulled back we see evidence of racism, sexism, and corporate privilege. We see hypocrisy, perversion, and the worst traits of humanity offered up as evidence of superiority. This is just more of the same; it is nothing new, and it explains why Hollywood has devolved to the point that it can no longer tell a good story... because the shit floated to the top.
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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Where Were You in ’85?

by ScottDS

My, my, my, where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday I was researching 1984, which is considered one of the best years for movies. As we move into 2015 (and with no hoverboards in sight), let us revisit 1985. As usual, the list mainly consists of genre pieces – nothing too prestigious!

Back to the Future – [sigh] This movie. It seems to be more popular now than it was upon its release 30 years ago. It’s an American classic, with a smart screenplay, fun characters, memorable dialogue, a soaring music score, and a wonderful “what if?” story at the center of it. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Michael J. Fox plays teenager Marty McFly who travels back in time in a DeLorean and endangers his own existence. If you ask me politely at a party where alcohol is being served, I might just quote the damn thing near-verbatim! “Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth's gravitational pull?”

Better Off Dead – I joined this particular cult rather late, having seen it for the first time 10 years ago. Check out Andrew’s review for the plot details. Needless to say, I enjoy the hell out of this movie. The whole thing just has this cool low-key vibe of a first-time writer/director (Savage Steve Holland) playing around with the ideas in his head. It's just a shame Holland is stuck in Disney TV land. The characters are likeable, Diane Franklin is adorable, some of the gags are downright bizarre, and one highlight is David Ogden Stiers as John Cusack’s dad… he plays it with the perfect amount of deadpan. “The K-12 dude. You make a gnarly run like that and girls will get sterile just looking at you.”

Brazil – Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece features Jonathan Pryce as a lovelorn office drone. As a design student, there are a handful of films I turn to when I need inspiration and this is one of them – it’s one of the most elaborate and detailed movies ever made. The screenplay has some genuine intelligence and wit (gotta love Tom Stoppard’s wordplay) and the acting is generally excellent… though I must admit things get a bit bonkers in the second half. Liberals and conservatives see each other in the film, and that suits me just fine! And the behind the scenes battles between Gilliam and the studio are the stuff of legend. “But I could be anybody.” “No you couldn't, sir.”

Explorers – Joe Dante’s sci-fi tale is fun for the whole family. Ethan Hawke (in his film debut) plays a sci-fi-obsessed teenager who’s been having dreams of a mysterious circuit board. After putting it together with his genius friend (River Phoenix, in his film debut), they realize they’re able to create a spaceship. With a third friend, they take the ship out one night and are intercepted by aliens. I loved this movie as a kid and it still holds up, but the ending just sits there. The studio didn’t let Dante finish the movie – the final version is a work in progress with characters and entire subplots missing. Having said that, the kids are likable, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is sublime, and Dante regulars Dick Miller and Robert Picardo show up, too. “If this is all a dream, what's gonna happen when we wake up?”

Clue – A genuine cult classic, back when the idea of making a film based on something as dumb as a board game was a risk and not Hollywood’s standard operating procedure!! I'm not an expert on much of Jonathan Lynn's work but of the films he's directed (including My Cousin Vinny), this has to be the best written of them all. The screenplay (by Lynn, from a concept by John Landis) is full of wonderful wordplay, the likes of which you don’t get very often today. The characters – obviously based on their game counterparts – are all given (somewhat) realistic backstories and the actors make it look effortless. And Colleen Camp has never been hotter! I first saw this film in Los Angeles, done Rocky Horror-style, with performers acting out the film on stage as it played on the screen behind them. “I was in the hall. I know because I was there.”

The Color Purple – This was Steven Spielberg’s eighth movie and to call it a change of pace would be an understatement. (It’s also the only Spielberg film not scored by John Williams). I confess I have yet to see it in its entirety – only bits on TV. Based on Alice Walker’s novel, the film tells the story of Celie Harris, a young black woman in the south during the early 20th century. Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey make their film debuts as Celie and Sofia, respectively. Per usual for Spielberg, the film is well-made and well-shot (at least from what I’ve seen) and, of course, the usual suspects wondered how a white Jewish director could make a movie about the female African-American experience. Some things never change. “I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here.”

Commando – I went through an 80s kick on Netflix a few years ago and I had so much fun watching this cheesefest! Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix – JOHN MATRIX!!!! – an ex-Special Forces something or other who has to rescue his daughter after she’s kidnapped by mercenaries… but does it matter? This is Schwarzenegger in his prime, just one year after The Terminator. There’s blood and explosions and crazy stunts and every conceivable weapon. And it might sound sacrilegious but this might be Arnie’s most quotable movie. He even gets in “I’ll be back”! Rae Dawn Chong assists Arnold on his mission and Vernon Wells plays the chainmail-clad bad guy, who gets one of my favorite lines: “John, I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes. I’m going to shoot you between the balls!”

National Lampoon’s European Vacation – This merely-okay sequel seems to get lost between the original film and Christmas Vacation. The Griswolds – Chevy Chase as Clark, Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen, and two new kids – win an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe and everything that can go wrong does. Honestly, I only remember a couple of things, including the roundabout gag (“There’s Big Ben! And Parliament!”) and that there’s more nudity than you’d get in a PG-13 movie today, because f--- the MPAA. Watch for some familiar faces, including John Astin as a game show host, Eric Idle as a bicyclist who receives the brunt of Clark’s buffoonery, and the late British comedian Mel Smith as a slimy motel clerk. Not much to say… maybe it’s due for a re-watch. “Honey, we're not normal people. We're the Griswolds.”

Death Wish 3 – For some folks, the Death Wish films are totally repulsive. For others, they’re pure entertainment, albeit with diminishing returns. Enter Death Wish 3, the last one directed by Michael Winner. It’s sleazy and dumb and you wonder how Charles Bronson’s character always manages to get into trouble, not to mention everyone close to him is raped or killed. This time, Paul Kersey is back in New York visiting an old war buddy… who is promptly killed by a local gang (whose members dress up like fans at a Warriors convention). The film becomes senior citizens vs. punks and Bronson is assisted by Martin Balsam as a WW2 vet who keeps a Browning machine gun in his closet. Obviously. And despite taking place in New York, the film was shot in England and it shows. “I'm going out for some ice cream... this is America, isn't it?”

Into the Night – This obscure curiosity by John Landis has always fascinated me for some reason. It tells the story of an insomniac (Jeff Goldblum) who encounters a young model named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s on the run from the SAVAK (Iran’s secret police). What follows is a strange series of capers, close calls, wrong turns, and other misadventures, all over the course of a night and a day in Los Angeles. Landis was known for casting other filmmakers in his movies and this one is no exception: Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Lynn, Paul Mazursky, make-up FX guru Rick Baker, etc. Landis himself – who was dealing with the aftermath of the Twilight Zone tragedy – plays a SAVAK goon. The biggest name in the cast is actually David Bowie, who plays a sadistic British hitman. This movie is weird but watchable. “Why can't I sleep?”

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure – Another childhood (and, uh, adulthood) favorite. Paul Reubens created the character of Pee-Wee Herman while at The Groundlings. This led to an acclaimed stage show, which was followed by a Saturday morning series for kids. This film – which also put Tim Burton and Danny Elfman on the map – tells a simple story of a man searching for his lost bike. Elfman’s score, inspired by Rota and Herrmann, is larger than life while the stop-motion gags and clown routines are pure Burton. Jan Hooks (who sadly passed away a month ago) is hilarious as an Alamo tour guide and the late, great Phil Hartman – who was part of the original Groundlings team – shows up at the end and also co-wrote the film with Reubens. “I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Rocky IV – More wonderful 80s cheese! This time it’s Rocky vs. Russia as we meet Ivan Drago, the Soviet Union’s top boxer. He kills Apollo Creed in the ring and Rocky decides to fight Drago to avenge his friend and defend his country. This isn’t a movie – it’s a series of montages with some filler in between. But man, it’s so much fun. Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, and Burt Young return and Dolph Lundgren makes for an imposing presence. I still can’t get over Rocky’s birthday gift to Paulie: a robot. Yes, he buys the man a robot. I always assumed the robot was a Soviet spy and if the film were made today, the robot would no doubt get its own spinoff movie. “I guess what I'm trying to say is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.”

A View to a Kill – The crappiest Bond movie until Die Another Day came along. Bond (Roger Moore in his final Bond film) investigates tycoon Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) who plans to destroy Silicon Valley which would give him a monopoly on the microchip industry. Everyone just looks tired in this one. Tanya Roberts is hot but doesn’t contribute much, Walken is uncharacteristically understated, and Grace Jones is…, well, she’s Grace Jones. Tech stuff is all top-notch but the rear-projection looks awfully dated, especially considering the technical leaps made in FX in this decade. Duran Duran’s theme song is a highlight, though. “You have exactly 35 minutes to get properly dressed, 007.”

The Purple Rose of Cairo – One of Woody Allen’s most charming movies, it tells the story of a Depression-era waitress who goes to see a movie, only for the lead character to notice her in the audience and leave the black and white movie screen for the colorful real world. Mia Farrow (naturally) plays Cecilia and Jeff Daniels plays Tom Baxter, an archeologist. Everything is fine until Gil Shepherd (Daniels), the actor who plays Baxter, learns of what happens. Cecilia must choose between the real actor or the fictional character. Woody Allen has said this is one of the few films of his that actually turned out the way he wanted it when he started writing. “You make love without fading out?”

Weird Science – Gotta love that Oingo Boingo theme song! John Hughes’ sci-fi tale features Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Gary and Wyatt, two nerds who use the power of computers to create their own perfect woman (Kelly LeBrock)… and then all hell breaks loose. Robert Downey Jr. shows up as the nerds’ nemesis and Bill Paxton steals the show as Wyatt’s older brother Chet. This film also taught a generation that the best protective gear is a bra on your head. I’m sure the inevitable remake will be twice as big and only half as good. “You know, there's going to be sex, drugs, rock-n-roll… chips, dips, chains, whips… You know, your basic high school orgy type of thing.”

Also: After Hours, The Black Cauldron, The Breakfast Club, Blood Simple, Cocoon, D.A.R.Y.L., Day of the Dead, Desperately Seeking Susan, Enemy Mine, Flesh + Blood, Fright Night, The Goonies, Jagged Edge, Lifeforce, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Pale Rider, Prizzi's Honor, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Spies Like Us, and Witness.

Will 2015 prove to be as memorable? We’re getting a new Jurassic Park, a new Terminator, and a new Star Wars. What year is it again??
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Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Friday: Monuments Men (2014)

I should have loved Monuments Men. It had so many things in it that I usually love. The cast is great. The idea is solid. The production values are first rate. And it's obvious this film was made with the idea of creating something lasting rather than yet another Big Shiny. But this film just bored me. Sad.

The Plot

Loosely based on the non-fiction book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” Monuments Men is the story of a unit of Allied soldier during World War II, who were assigned the task of tracking down all the great art works the Nazis plundered from the lands they conquered and to save them from destruction as the war came to a close and the desperate Nazis were destroying or hiding these things to cover their tracks.
The unit, called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program, was created by FDR at the urging of Frank Stokes (George Clooney), who convinced FDR that letting the Nazis destroy the artistic history of Western Civilization would amount to a disaster, even if the Allies won the war. Stokes is directed to assemble a unit of museum directors, curators and art historians to find these treasures and make sure they are ultimately returned to their rightful owners. Joining him are the likes of John Goodman, Bill Murray and Matt Damon. The film follows their efforts.

On the other side of the story is Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum curator who has been forced to assist Nazi Viktor Stahl as he finds and steals great art for Hitler and his cronies like Goering. Her brother is a resistance fighter who seems to specialize in stealing these items back.
The film is largely disguised episodic in nature with a loose narrative tying these events together. The main theme seems to be the resistance of regular soldiers to helping Clooney's team, and the plotlines tend to involve them learning the location of some missing art and then going to find it. Toward the end of the film, the team discovers that the Nazis are hiding vast amounts of art in abandoned mines. They must get to this art before the Soviets do, or the Soviets will steal it and take it back to Russia as a “war reparations.” They also capture Stahl and there are a couple moments where they briefly walk into combat scenes.

Why This Film Didn’t Work

The film received mixed to negative reviews. The Guardian said there were too many characters and the film never felt satisfying because it sent them all off to do little tasks, which often weren’t that interesting. The consensus at Rotten Tomatoes was that the film has “noble intentions” and a great cast, but they couldn’t overcome the “stiffly nostalgic tone and the curiously slack dialog.” Some Spanish rag called it “Hollywood war propaganda.” Yeah, leave Hitler alone, Hollywood! On the other hand, Rolling Stone liked it, calling it a movie about “aspiration” and “a proudly untrendy, uncynical movie.” Talk about true irony! Rolling Stone peddles pure cynicism and always has.
In any event, many of these critics have put their fingers on part of the problem: this film relies too heavily on its premise to sell the film rather than its execution. This was the same problem in The Family, which I reviewed recently, and with most of Clooney’s other recent films. Look, I like Clooney and I want to like his films, but in film after film it feels like he thinks that the concept itself is strong enough that he doesn’t need to offer more than his character walking through the film, discovering the concept and then acting upset or outraged at what he discovered, see e.g. Syrianna, Burn Before Reading, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Solaris, Michael Clayton, etc. These are all films with great concepts, solid casts and much promise, but they underwhelm as they end up more like a series of vignettes rather than real plots, and they rely on the audience feeling shocked that such things exist rather than feeling entertained by the plot.
Shocking audiences with something they never guessed existed before is a great start to any story. In fact, if you can find such a story premise, you are a major step ahead of all the formulaic crap out there. But that is only a beginning. For Monuments Men to be entertaining, they needed to develop the characters, put them into some sort of situation of conflict, and take us on that journey to resolve it one way or another. This film never does it.

For starters, as noted by the critics, there are too many characters for us to focus on which characters to care about. They try to make up for this by giving us actors who come with a history of goodwill already in place. This includes guys like Bill Murray and John Goodman and Clooney himself and Matt Damon. But liking the actors doesn’t compensate when I can’t tell you who the characters they played are or what they did. Moreover, I have to say that my goodwill for Murray and Damon is long gone and my goodwill for Clooney is waning.
So the audience doesn’t know who to care about or why or even what they really do that the others don’t. And that’s the next problem: we know in a broad sense what these guys do, but the film never manages to make it seem challenging. To the contrary, they seem to get tips from out of the blue. They never need to fight their way into those areas. The other American soldiers don’t seem to like them, but they don’t really stand in their way. The Nazis all surrender quickly and seem harmless as villains. Even the race against the Soviets is never presented as a race so much as a theoretical challenge.

The end result of this is that characters you don’t know or care about follow tips that seem to fall from Heaven and are always right to go pick up treasures with no genuine obstacles standing in their way. That’s not exciting... it’s not interesting. I honestly suspect that a documentary would have managed to be more exciting than this film turned out to be, and that’s sad.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ultimate Airport Dubai

Fifty years ago, Dubai International Airport was nothing but desert. Today, it’s a major modern transportation hub which sits within one direct flight of 90% of the world’s population. It also still sits in a desert and faces unique problems because of that. In Ultimate Airport Dubai, you get a fascinating look behind the scenes of this amazing airport and I highly recommend it.

Ultimate Airport Dubai is a reality television series that follows a group of employees around the Dubai International Airport (DIA) as they go about their daily jobs. These jobs include managing air traffic, managing the movement of cargo and luggage, customer handling, aircraft maintenance, and the construction of a brand new terminal. See, this airport, already the largest building on earth by floor space (360 football fields in size), is too small to meet Dubai’s ambitious plans for the future, so they are expanding it.
How much are they expanding it? Right now, the airport handles 340,000 flights a year, carrying 57 million passengers and 2 million tons of cargo... making it the third busiest airport in the world. They want to add another 15 million passengers a year. To that end, they’ve hired 18,000 construction workers to build the new terminal. This new terminal will then add to the 60,000 employees who already work at the airport. Interestingly, almost every single employee you see is an ex-pat, and the reason is that over 80% of the people who live in Dubai are ex-pats.

The story is fascinating.
Let’s start with the basics. This one has everything a “reality” show should have. It has amazing imagery; this airport is meant to impress and it does, and Dubai is mysterious. Moreover, the camera work gives you fascinating perspectives you will never get any other way. The writing/editing is solid. The drama is relevant to the topic too; everything focuses on the problems the employees face on the job. This is good because it results in a real feeling that you are being let into the true challenges of running this airport and solving its unique problems, rather than chasing tangential issues like the personal problems of the employees. The pacing is excellent too and the story never slows or drags. To the contrary, the story hits you so hard and fast that it's impossible to turn your eyes away. Additionally, there is such a wealth of detail crammed into the story that you feel like you need to watch it 2-3 times just to get it all. Finally, the people they follow are interesting and likeable, which makes the show enjoyable, and it has a solid, serious narrator who knows when to stay out of the action.
In fact, the people are really interesting and quickly make you interested in them. For example, you have the construction manager who is run ragged and must navigate a series of subcontractors who are much less dedicated than he is. You wonder if he will ever pull off his Herculean task. You have the engineering crew who must tear these planes apart and reassemble them. You have the cargo manager for whom every landing is a race against the clock as he tracks missing bags, the bags of missing passengers, missing cargo and other cargo that has gone wrong in some manner. All the while, he risks costing a plane its takeoff slot.
There are more too. You have the hostess who must juggle a million passenger complaints, violent passengers, sick passengers, missing passengers, and the complexities of rebooking people who often fall between the cracks and find themselves stuck at the airport. You have the customs officer who must be on the look out for drugs and black magic. And so on.
All of that makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. But the topic is the real gem. The story of this airport is a fascinating topic. It is a hidden world you knew nothing about before you set out to watch the show and it is an amazing world... a world of high engineering, human error, rules and the bending of rules, all taking place in this hidden world wrapped in the enigma of being set in Dubai with all of its idiosyncrasies and mysteries. So much of what we think we know about the Middle East isn't true here, but so much also is. And seeing it all take place amidst such intense opulence is just fascinating. This show is enthralling and I absolutely recommend it.

The one word of caution is that it’s not easy to find. It’s on NatGeo during the days right now, but seems to come and go. If you can’t find it there, it is on Youtube: Ultimate Airport Dubai.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!!

This is always a great time of year to thank God that you're not a pilgrim. Just kidding, pilgrims. But seriously, this is a great time of year to think about what you should be thankful for. We live in the greatest, most free, most productive country in the world. We are surrounded by genuinely good people who believe in community, charity, and fair play, and millions of people work tirelessly to make everything a little bit better every day. Who can beat that?

Besides that though, we should all be thankful for our friends and family and for the chance to make their lives better as they've made ours better. It's a great time to remind them that you love them, isn't it?

Personally, I'm thankful for my wonderful parents and my great sister, my incredible wife, and my amazing kids. I'm thankful to be alive. I'm thankful that I get to see and experience everything this world has to offer. I'm thankful for e-meeting all of you. And I'm thankful that we can experience things like joy and happiness and contentment.

So what are you thankful for?

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Thoughts on Ghostbusters III

by ScottDS

If there’s one question that seems to be on the minds of geeks everywhere, it’s “So when are we going to get another Ghostbusters?” followed by “Wait, do we really need another one?” It took five years to release a second film and we’re now 25 years later. The wheels seem to be in motion, albeit in super slow motion. But is it too late? Should sleeping terror dogs lie?

[long sigh] Okay, here it is. In the 90s, Dan Aykroyd (“the heart of the ghostbusters”) wrote a draft for a third film that involved a parallel version of Manhattan dubbed “Manhellton.” From what I recall, Hell was overcrowded and only the boys in beige could stop the incoming tide of undead. Pretty neat idea, and some of it was used in the 2009 video game. This movie would also involve a younger team of ghostbusters and names like Will Smith and Chris Farley were bandied about. The studio was interested, but Bill Murray was not. (This is going to be a running theme here!) Having expressed his disappointment at how Ghostbusters II came out, and with sequels in general, Murray said he’d only do it if he could be a ghost. To this day, the enigmatic Murray has been nothing but reticent: never saying “yes,” usually saying “no,” sometimes offering a cautious “maybe.” This hasn’t stopped Aykroyd, who’s been talking up a third film for the last decade and a half. (Not to mention Aykroyd doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making sequels without important co-stars!)

This entire time, Ivan Reitman was still attached as producer/director. A few years ago, he was developing a script with two writers from The Office (yay!) who also wrote Year One (boo!). Meanwhile, Murray was still waffling, Aykroyd was still promising release dates, Reitman decided he wouldn’t direct it after all, and even semi-retired Rick Moranis said he’d do it if the material was good. And then Harold Ramis, who had been collaborating on and off with Aykroyd, passed away. At this point, people rightfully asked, “Is it time to shut it down?” For the studio, the answer was an emphatic “No!” As of this writing, Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and The Heat, has signed on to direct and is developing a script with writer Katie Dippold (The Heat, Parks and Recreation). It’s said to be a remake, featuring an all-female group of busters.

[longer sigh] This is… not a... hoooorrible idea... Feig loves the movies and doesn’t want to stomp all over them, which is why they’re doing it as a remake instead… but then why call it Ghostbusters? (That was a rhetorical question!) Or better yet, why couldn’t they simply have another group in another part of New York City that just happens to be all-female? Every sequel idea that’s out there seems to include the Ghostbusters as a large corporation, so it’s only logical that there would be other offices. As for the female thing, despite Feig’s comments, I think it comes across as a gimmick. It’ll inspire a thousand think pieces from the bloggers of the world and it’ll be the only thing people talk about. And it’s not as if their gender will be relevant. We’ll still get a smooth-talker, and a brain, and so on. Or maybe I’m wrong and the fact that they’re all female will be relevant to the plot, but wouldn’t that undercut the entire idea? The gender shouldn’t matter at all, hence my use of the “gimmick” label. Yes, women can be funny, and maybe if we stop asking the question, it’ll go away! And I understand the need for representation, but then why make them all female? How about a mix? And I’m sorry but there’s no story they could write that will satisfy everyone who’s angling for the all-female thing. “This movie is too feminist!” “This movie isn’t feminist enough!”

The story? I have no idea. Feig wants to make something scary but there’s definitely a template at work. Will we simply get another underdog story with a love interest and a powerful force trying to break through to our world and a climax involving a large, walking object? Given that this is a remake, it seems highly likely. And how do you redesign iconic props and vehicles? The designers of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films have done a decent job in my opinion, though more tech-oriented fans have completely excoriated them. Will the new proton pack look like something from the Apple Store, or will they continue with the homemade, jury-rigged look that made the first film so relatable? (It was a going into business story after all!)

As for actors, it’s anybody’s guess. I’ve seen a lot of names mentioned: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Emma Stone, Rebel Wilson, etc. I have no wish list but only one request: get great actors who can do comedy. Don’t get comedians who happen to be good actors. I don’t want to see Melissa McCarthy doing the uncouth slob thing again. I don’t want Tina Fey playing just another version of Liz Lemon. And I don’t want to see Aubrey Plaza do… that thing she seems to do 90% of the time. You know what? I’d love to see someone like Cate Blanchett in something like this! Or Amy Adams! That’s the other thing… will the film feature actual adults, or 20-somethings… you know, for the millennials?!

My other thoughts are just nitpicking. The previous films are great-looking films, lensed by award-winning cinematographers. Will the new film have a distinctive look, or will it look like every other sterile, overly-bright comedy out there today? And the music… who will be the lucky musician to contribute an original theme song? (Anybody but Kanye!) Bear McCreary has my vote to do the music score. He was a protégé of the late Elmer Bernstein, who scored the first film (and almost every other classic 80s comedy) and his geek credentials are second to none. And in an effort to up the ante and compete with the superhero films, will the ending involve the leveling of the city in an orgy of CGI? Or just one building? (If there was any film where the makers could indulge in old-school techniques like cloud tank photography, this would be it!)

If I were president of Hollywood, I’d use a story I read about five years ago on an architecture blog. The writer came up with an idea involving NYNEX, the old New England telephone company (the “X” even stood for the unknown future, or the “uneXpected”). What if the ancient cables and trunk lines were actually the embedded nervous system of a fallen angel? The film would end with a climactic confrontation at the old AT&T Long Lines Building, a Brutalist-style structure at 33 Thomas Street. Pretty cool! But I’m not the president of Hollywood, just a geek.

I write this not to bitch, but to ponder. There are only a handful of franchises that I’m passionate about and this is one of them. And yeah, if they screw it up, we’ll still have the untouched originals (not even Star Wars fans can say that!). I remain cautiously neutral. What say you?
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lorax Teaches The Wrong Lessons

I had the misfortune of watching The Lorax (2012) the other day. In particular, I found myself shaking my head at the lessons it imparts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still annoyed me. What lessons? Read on...

Throughout my life, I’ve discovered something interesting about the human race: we are a bell curve in all things. I’ve seen this over and over in every field I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it in early adopter rates, grade distribution, IQ distribution, and even advertising theories on how to influence the public. It’s everywhere. And where it has been most interesting to me is in the discovery that the human race can be broken into three groups when it comes to societal benefit, for lack of a better phrase. The theory works like this:
● 10% of the human population are good people who drive humanity for the better. The most obvious example of these people are inventors, artists, writers, and others who provide things that enrich or improve other people’s lives. But this category isn’t limited to those people. It also includes people who start businesses, early adapters, the rare teachers who inspire their students, and even just average people who become mentors to others and make the world a better place. Big or small makes no difference, these are just people who make things better.

● At the other end, 10% of the human population are malicious people who do bad things. Interestingly, only some of these people realize that they are villains. The majority of these people think of themselves as the good 10%, even though their instincts are malicious and their actions and ideas are highly destructive. You can see an example of this, believe it or not, with Hitler. If you ever see interviews of his staff, you will be shocked to learn that Hitler genuinely thought he was the good guy. You see this sometimes with serial killers too, who think they are doing God’s work, with busy-bodies who delude themselves that their desires to control others come from their “deep sense of caring” about others, and with people who just get off on causing problems.

● The other 80% of the human population are essentially sheep. They do what they are told by the people they recognize as authority figures. Interestingly, however, these people often think of themselves as independent thinkers who “make up their own minds,” and they react very poorly to any suggestion to the contrary, even though they never actually think for themselves... as an aside, these people are the reason so much advertising simultaneously combines the ideas of keeping up with the Jones while ridiculously claiming that buying certain mass-produced products is only for “people who think for themselves.” Disturbingly, these people have a hard time spotting the difference between the good and bad 10%ers and will just as slavishly follow a vicious negative 10%er as they would a good 10%er if they come to see them as the authority.
So what does this have to do with The Lorax? Well, The Lorax very clearly demonstrates these groups and how they work. Unfortunately, it presents the wrong lessons in doing so.

The Lorax is the story of a 12 year old Ted Wiggins. Wiggins lives in a walled city made of plastic and metal. It contains no trees. The reason it doesn’t have trees is that the mayor, Aloysius O’Hare, sells bottled oxygen. He knows that trees provide oxygen for free, so he works hard to make sure there are none in the city. What destroyed the trees originally was a man called Once-ler. He was an entrepreneur who cut down the trees to make his product. In so doing, he ignored the objections of the Lorax, which was a being who protects the trees. Once-ler didn’t intend to cut down all the trees and he came to realize his mistake, but he did it nevertheless... all except for one seed. He gives that seed to Ted, who tries to plant it.
As Ted tries to plant the seed, the mayor tries to stop him. The mayor even warns the people that what Ted is trying to do is dangerous because trees produce sap and other pollutants. Upon hearing this, the public turns on Ted and essentially forms a lynch mob. But then Ted denies the charge and one of the locals decides that Ted is right. He states his support for Ted. Suddenly, the mob declares Ted to be right and turns on the mayor. The story ends happily.

Here’s are the problems.

First, this film clearly breaks into the three groups. Ted is a good 10%er who wants to make the world better. He sees a way to improve it and sets out to do so. The mayor is a bad 10%er. He knows he’s the villain and he thinks nothing of using evil means to get what he wants, which is profit and control. Once-ler is also a bad 10%er, though he is one who doesn’t understand his own evil. He thought he was the good guy, making use of the trees in a way he thought was responsible to produce a product that people wanted and employ people who needed jobs. It was only later that he learned his mistake. Finally, the public are exactly what the 80% are like: fickle, stupid, and mindless followers of whomever they see as the authority figure in their lives.

It is interesting to see a film break down these groups so clearly. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know what to do from there. Thus, for example, rather than pointing out that Once-ler is a villain, it essentially sells him as a victim. It shows him suffering at “the mistake” he made and being imprisoned for what he has done. It also let’s him protest over and over that he never intended to kill all the trees, without ever requiring him to explain why he ignored the obvious warning signs and took no care to prevent the problem that was so obvious. In effect, it removes his villainy and makes him a helpless victim of a mistake and thereby forgives his villainy without true remorse or even understanding. This teaches the wrong lesson as it eliminates the element of personal responsibility so long as you had good intentions. But good intentions are not and should never be considered an inoculant to criminal or evil or immoral or stupid behavior.
Compounding this, the film then sells the audience the standard comfortable view of evil through the mayor. Essentially, the film tells the audience that evil is easy to spot because it knows it is evil and it knows that it’s actions are wrong. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to teach. Basically, rather than teaching kids that you need to watch all of your actions regardless of your intent, lest you act in an evil or rotten manner, the film sends the message: “Don’t worry, evil is obvious and unless you set out to be evil, you’ll be fine.”

Finally, you have the 80%ers. This is the truly obnoxious message. These people mindlessly followed the mayor for years. Once someone pointed out his crime, they absolutely failed to rationally assess the claim and to decide if they had been mistaken in supporting him. Instead, they turned into a lynch mob, determined to silence the dissident. This failure should have been highlighted in a major way to the audience. But the film didn’t do that. To the contrary, it excused the 80% by having them switch sides moments later when the worker announced that he had decided to back Ted.
But this represents yet another horrible lesson. Whether Ted was right or not, the 80%ers undertook no independent investigation. They never thought through what he said, looked at his claim or even demanded answers. They simply switched sides because they felt the herd had changed horses when the workman announced his decision to switch his support. This is a horrible lesson. The 80%ers need to be taught to conduct an actual analysis, not merely to follow whomever they see as the most authoritative person at the time. For all they know, Ted is an even bigger villain or fool and they are about to make things much worse. They don’t know because they never stopped to investigate. And the film rewarded this kind of false reasoning by letting audience know that Ted is right. Essentially, the message remains: just make sure you follow the nicer guy, when it should be to truly think for yourself for once. That’s how Hitlers get made, because evil, which is never bounded by reality or reason, makes much better promises.

This is my problem with this film. The film correctly identifies these groups but then acts as a sedative to calm the 80% into thinking that evil will be easy to spot and fixing evil is as easy as watching to see whom the crowd prefers. These are ridiculous messages to send.

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